When “acting out” means starting a business

Sophia Maroon is the Founder of Dress It Up, a salad dressing line developed from her mother’s original recipe.

Why don’t you introduce yourself and your company?

Sophia: My name is Sophia and I’m the founder of Dress It Up Dressing. I make a line of salad dressings. It’s the recipe that my mother fed us when we were children. It is a clean and simple recipe of olive oil, vinegar, mustard, and garlic. It was all she ever served and when I left home, I left home with the recipe and it was all I ever made. About eight years ago, when I was a stay-at-home mom with three children, I was itching to do something and toying around with a bunch of different ideas that were all over the map. One of them was this idea of my brothers. He always said, mom’s salad dressing is so good, you could sell it and I decided to put that to the test. Eight years later, I’m running a salad dressing company.

Any thoughts on being called a founding mother?

Sophia: I love it but I feel like my mother might be the founding mother. I’m whatever comes after the founding. I’m the foundling. My mother is a champion cheerleader of Dress It Up. When I first started Dress It Up, I was actually in the middle of a divorce, which is, I think, when women often do their most creative things. I could’ve acted out in a thousand other different ways, but this was my way of acting out. When I first started it, I was just throwing around the idea of starting the company. I didn’t have any money, and my mother was one of seven investors, all friends, and family who invested $5000 each.

In your Bon Appetit interview, you talked about the power of saying Yes. I think saying yes is really important, on a personal level and a professional level. I’d love to hear your perspective.

Sophia: Well part of it was, there I was, a single mom, suddenly. I was just rather fearless at that time in my life because I didn’t have anything to be afraid of. I had been kicked out of my little comfort box. Once you get kicked out of that, what do you do next? It was this huge liberating moment. I no longer had to be the preschool mom and the wife and the mother and that thing that somehow I think women impose on themselves, that once you’re a mother, that you fall into this mother trap. In the mother trap, you have to conform in a lot of ways. After my divorce, I felt like I didn’t have to conform anymore. I made different choices. When I was married, I would’ve felt guilty about my husband being at home watching the kids, every Sunday morning for four hours while I was out at the Farmer’s Market. When you don’t have a choice, you suddenly get a lot of leeway to do things. I think part of that is just giving yourself permission to do things. You’ve got this expectation, as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, that you have to be this thing. If you take some of that away and you have an opportunity to give yourself permission to just figure out what it is you want to do.

“When you don’t have a choice, you suddenly get a lot of leeway to do things. I think part of that is just giving yourself permission to do things.” – Sophia Maroon

How some of your business philosophies can translate into how you do the rest of your life? Is it your natural disposition to be a risk-taker and that part didn’t scare you? Are you also a risk-taker when it comes to how you parent your kids?

Sophia: That’s an interesting parallel. I am very bold within boundaries, with both the business and with my parenting. As far as the business is concerned, I started it on the heels of a divorce. I had three children that were so young and who had been through so much. I’d been a full-time mother since the third was born. The idea of me disappearing when they were already going through so much, I couldn’t go back to work. That would destabilize them, so I started the company because of the children because it would enable me to be the kind of mother that I think I needed to be to them.

Early on, when the company was growing and we were seeing some real traction, I had conversations with investors, because we needed money to grow, and I spoke with a couple of investors who were really willing to stroke a check for whatever number I told them. Then I thought about it and realized, if they write me that check, then they’re holding me hostage. I’m suddenly beholden to them. As much as it would be fantastic to have that for the company, it would mean that I had a new master. I needed to have a boss who knew how important my children were. I figured that the only way I could do that was boot-strapping it. Instead, I ended up taking out a loan that was about half the size of the loan that I actually needed from the SBA. We’ve suffered and boot-strapped and it’s been really tough because we didn’t have that money.

It did give me the freedom to be a parent first, at least for the first couple of years. Then, once my children were a little older and a little more independent, I could really plow my efforts into the company differently. In that way, I was not willing to be so bullish about the company, that it would stop me from being a mom.

What would you say is the craziest thing that happened to you through the years while you were building the salad dressing company?

This story is from a long time ago but it’s as crazy as it gets. We had a truck full of products that had frozen in shipment. It was all fully separated and we couldn’t sell it or, I wouldn’t sell it. I thought “If it’s still edible, we can donate the product to food banks.” I can’t remember why, but we had pallets and pallets of dressing that could not be sold and I didn’t want to throw it away. I contacted a biodiesel company and they said “Sure, we’ll turn it into fuel. I’ll drive around the beltway and it’ll smell like a fabulous marinade.” I ended up hiring every teenager in my neighborhood. They sat there with these huge drum barrels and scooped salad dressing out of the jar with spatulas for hours on end.

We had three of these huge drums full of 5,000 units of salad dressing just sitting in the driveway. Then, the biodiesel company truck comes along and they have a reverse vacuum machine that sucks up all the oil. It was extraordinary. We didn’t throw anything away. We recycled the glass, we recycled the metal lid, and the dressing was turned into biodiesel. It ended up being zero waste.

Awareness of the company’s impact on the environment is important to me. Of course, we want to make money, but, as a Mom, I think “I’m a mom, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do a lot of things at once, so I can run a successful company and still have a big social impact objective, as well.”

“I’m a mom, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I can do a lot of things at once, so I can run a successful company and still have a big social impact objective, as well.” – Sophia Maroon

Do you think your kids recognize that you are often putting yourself into uncomfortable situations? Due to the nature of your work, you end up doing things that you didn’t know you could do. You’re modeling that behavior day in and day out. Do you think your kids are absorbing the lesson?

Sophia Maroon with her kidsSophia: Totally. Totally. They know exactly what I do and they know the struggles. They know the choices that we’ve made and we’ve often made those choices together. I’ve said I can go back to a real job at many junctures or I could do this. It’s going to mean that we all have to sacrifice so we can camp. There are going to be prices to pay, but they’ve been on every inch of this little journey with me.

It’s a bit of a rollercoaster. Thank goodness they’ve been really flexible about it because there are highs and lows about what I do. Anytime you’re self-employed, those highs are high, but the lows are awful. I think that they’ve got a really keen appreciation of what hard work looks like. Also, they are probably all going to go running for a stable, salaried job their entire lives. They’ll work for the same company for 40 years because they’ve seen what this looks like and they’re going to run from it.

I was listening to a podcast about Imposter Syndrome. Lots of people I talk to bring it up and talk about feeling like “I’m not qualified to do this, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just winging it.”

Sophia: Yeah. One of my old bosses wrote to me recently and I wanted to see if I could find what she wrote. She summed it up so beautifully, just about how flexible women are and how capable we are, and how we often don’t recognize what we’re capable of doing at the time. It’s only something we recognize after the fact. I want to read it to you because she’s got a way with words and it was just beautiful. She said, “You’re a testament to the resiliency of women. We women we’re resourceful, inventive, clever, fierce. We are not fearless. Only a fool is fearless, but we’re capable of doing what must be done, despite our fears. We’re also more capable of embracing change and more likely to recognize both the differences and similarities between the change we choose and the change that chooses us.”

Ignorance is bliss. You said not knowing what you were getting into is one way to get through it.

Sophia: I read these emails that I wrote to people early on, to the buyer at Whole Foods. Now I realize the audacity of what I was asking at that moment and how unprofessional I was in what I was asking. I think it’s really comical the naivete of somebody who’s just starting out. It gets you really far, so enjoy it while it lasts. I think women do amazing things, sometimes things that they didn’t know they could do. It’s really amazing what we’re capable of.

What advice would you give to a mom who is thinking of starting a business as we emerge from Covid-19?

Sophia: My advice would be to be realistic yet optimistic. While you may be driven by passion and enthusiasm, you also need to keep an outsider’s view on your business and look at it with a dispassionate “cold eye” from time to time, just so you don’t get carried away. That said, aim for the best possible outcome every time, because if you don’t, who will? There are some incredible ideas out there and opportunities to bring them to fruition. There was a terrific article I read in Forbes yesterday by Jennifer Palmer about Mompreneurs that talked about how Moms make such wonderful entrepreneurs because Moms get $hit done, but also because some of the most creative and intelligent startups are born from moms’ ah-ha moments – looking at what we or our families need and taking it from there. That was certainly the case with Dress It Up! Plus, we have these built-in networks of other moms who provide fantastic test audiences for whatever we’re trying to do, so don’t be shy. Last thought: starting a company is challenging, but it’s way less demanding than motherhood, and so if you’ve done that, you can do this!

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As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..

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